John Crowley’s immigration tale is a classically but beautifully realised journey of self-discovery. It’s in Australian cinemas now.
Coming-of-age is a process that is often reduced to a series of superficial markers, first romance and a change of clothes being two of the most commonly used. Rely on these, and a journey of personal transformation, whether into adulthood or the next stage of one’s life, is made purely as simple as removing the outer layer of oneself. Coming-of-age is, of course, not just an outward shift, but also an inward one. It’s a collection of moments that mark a gradual change in perception, unnoticeable until it’s tectonic. It’s a departure from the world one finds themselves in, only to find solace in the world they’ve created for themself.
Screenwriter Nick Hornby created another such journey in 2009s An Education, another funny but also moving tale of a young woman on the precipice of self-discovery. In both films, in fact, you witness the moment of change right before your very eyes. Everything prior to the breaking point, where frustration meets genuine gradual emotional growth, is subtly moving towards it, a tide changing so quietly it’s unnoticeable. For Eilis (a luminous Saoirse Ronan), it’s an equally unexpected journey. Her immigration to America, including her employment and accommodation, was arranged by her older sister (Fiona Glascott). Initially, Eilis’s life feels as predestined as it did back in Ireland – the priest (Jim Broadbent) who is sponsoring her is a friend of her sister, and she’s staying in a boarding house that’s overseen by a no-nonsense Irishwoman (Julie Walters). When she tells her roommate on the voyage across the Atlantic of her already perfectly arranged life, they question her of how she feels about even having her move to a different country all perfectly laid out for her. Eilis shrugs, none the wiser.
But Hornby and director John Crowley, who slowly draw the audience into the understated but disarmingly warm atmosphere of the film, have other plans for Eilis. Early on, while still homesick and clinging to her letters from home like a lifeline, she meets the gentle and charming Tony (Emory Cohen) at a church-hosted dance. Tony – Italian to the point of stereotype, his accent out-of-place amongst a sea of Irish brogues – is her first glimpse of a life outside the bounds of what came before, and Eilis grabs it with both hands. Crowley revels in their blossoming relationship – the trips to Coney Island, meeting Tony’s family, and accompanying Eilis home because the wait to see one another again is too long (a particularly tender moment) – with unintrusive direction simply observing their gradual metamorphosis, which is the key to eliciting genuine moments that make the film a quietly shattering experience. But Crowley, whose simple but lush images courtesy of Yves Belanger (the master behind the camera in Jean-Marc Vallee’s Wild and Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways) recall studio romances of the 1950s, keeps the narrative firmly out of being all about the infatuation. Like all good romances, what makes Eilis and Tony resonate is their ability to exist separately, their relationship about finding a deep connection with another, and finding strength from that connection to make a change.
It’s a key to the third act which, like An Education (one remembers the scene where Jenny snaps in front of her principal), delivers an emotional punch that brings the gradual changes to indeed a moment of a great tectonic shift. It’s indeed a tipping point, a realisation that one no longer belongs in the world they were thrown into. But it’s not a moment of sadness or of loneliness, unlike an earlier scene where a lonely Irishman sings a mournful song at Christmas dinner (it’s a moment that’s left barely a dry eye in the cinema the three times I’ve seen the film). It’s realising that there’s another place, a better place that already exists, and a move towards it is simple. It’s here, where Eilis makes the final departure from her former life, that the previous 90 minutes of Brooklyn transcend being a simple romantic drama. Eilis’s journey is more than the clothes, the settings, and the romantic gestures. It’s the shift in the light in her eyes, the surge in confidence conveyed in her voice in Saoirse Ronan’s slow metamorphosis of a performance. It’s a conversation atop a sand dune, where two different realities converse, and couldn’t feel more distant. It’s an end, and it’s a beginning. As she leans against a wall on the streets of Brooklyn, dappled by golden light, Eilis has truly arrived.